One of the best ways to get a glimpse of the scope of the phenomenon we call “games” is by finding a game that you know very little about, like, say, Mancala – a strategy game that is played throughout Africa and beyond – and browsing through some of the hundreds of versions of that game, traditional and modern. And perhaps one of the best places to begin is with a site devoted to Mancala, like this one,
I’ve been fascinated by Mancala ever since I first encountered it in R.C. Bell’s book Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations. It’s simply so unlike any board game I had ever played. Mancala, which, according to the ELLIOT AVEDON VIRTUAL MUSEUM OF GAMES, is “played today primarily in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean area. It’s origins are rooted in ancient Egypt, and according to Murray can be traced to the Empire Age (about the 15th to 11th centuries BC). The game spread from Egypt to many parts of Africa and then to the Middle East. As Muslim culture spread in the early AD centuries, it carried the game with it to India, Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It was carried from many Black African cultures during the period of the slave trade to the Caribbean area. Until recent times, the game was unknown in the non-Islamic parts of Europe and The Americas.”
I always thought of it as a kind of seed-sowing game. I imagined its origins developed on some fallow field, the pits scooped out of the earth. But whatever its origins, its strategic complexities and variations have fascinated people around the world, and its power as an exercise in logic and prediction has brought it to elementary school math classes around the world.
In the beginning of a game, you each have the same number of stones (seeds, marbles) that you’ve placed in your pits. A turn consists of lifting all the stones in one of your pits and sowing them, one at a time, into adjacent pits. Everything depends on where your last stone ends up. In some games, if it ends in a pit that has stones in it, you pick up all those stones and continue sewing until you end in an empty pit. In others, if you end in a pit that has exactly three or four, you win all those stones. In yet others, you take the stones from the opposite pit.
Though they are board games, you don’t, as the illustration Hoyito, uh, illustrates, really need a board, and you can use just about anything for pieces – beans, stones, pellets, seeds. Mancala games are also called “Count and Capture” games because that’s pretty much what you do when you play.
As you click your way through the remarkably diverse variations of the game, you begin to sense that there is some phenomenon that Mancala embraces, very different from chess and checkers, but as relevant to our understanding of the cycles of human existence as any game that our culture has created: government, justice, religion, education, crime and punishment. Small stages where dramas are enacted which are fundamental, transcendent, gripping portrayals of life, replete with tragedy, comedy, wisdom and fun.
Hans Bodlaender has developed a page of links to versions that you can play online. It’s a great way to learn about a game that much of the world plays, and yet is remarkably, and enticingly foreign for the rest of us.